At first, Elenor’s son assumed the box contained a dead dog that the family had buried in the backyard and forgotten about soon after. Because no stink of decomposition wrinkled his nose, however, and because he could detect no heartbeat of insect wings or scuttling of roaches within, he soon abandoned this first theory, and he brought the box into the house.
It was a small, smooth box of dark wood, and under close inspection, the son deemed it too fine to have been consigned to the purgatory of dead leaves from which the construction crew had unearthed it when they dug the ground up for the pool. He assumed Elenor would recognize the antique, for while the son and his family had only been back in the house for a few months, his mother had lived there her entire life.
Nonetheless, it remained possible that the dirt and decay had smothered the box for longer still than that, its quiet pallbearance through the decades disturbed only when the rain trickled down through the soil to tap against its lid, or when the creeping inertia of worms sent them slithering over its varnish, or when the claws of searching rodents skittered and scraped against its hinges as they went divining through the muck.
“Should I rebury this?” the son asked Elenor. He nodded to the box, which he’d placed on the kitchen table. “Maybe near the garden somewhere?”
At the sink, Elenor frowned and dried her hands with a kitchen towel. “Why, what is it?”
“I thought you’d know. I figured it was an old family pet or something.”
“No. My father always hated animals. We never kept any. This has to be…something else.”
“Maybe it belonged to the family that lived here before you.”
“Nobody lived here before us.”
“Well, it’s a nice box. Handmade. You see the carvings there? And I’m certain the wood is mahogany. We could sell it, maybe. Or we could keep it, if it’s of more sentimental value.”
“Hmm.” Elenor took a step toward the table and peered more closely at the box. She had to admit it was a handsome antique, certainly something she would have picked out according to her own tastes, but she could not recall ever seeing it before. She stood over it—loomed was the word which passed now through her head, even if she could not say why such a dour term would flit through her mind at this moment—but soon she found herself wondering not to whom the box had belonged to, but to when.
For something about its presence here, now, seemed incongruous with the remodeled kitchen, with the adult son and his family who had moved in with her, and indeed with the present moment itself. This box unnerved her on a subconscious level, as though the secret memory of the object was concealed beneath its own lid inside her racing heart.
She took one more step forward so that the box lay within reach of her fingertips. Even so, she hesitated before she touched it, reluctant to establish such intimacy and yet spellbound by the exquisite carvings. Flowers and vines encircled the box’s lid, a fairy dance of craftsmanship. This vessel held within it a true and inexorable secret. At last, the pad of her fingertip brushed the flawless lip of the lid. The edge felt as smooth as that soft mouth which gave the piece its name. She gasped, recognizing only now that the flowers carved into the wood were lilies. Lilies had always been her favorite, ever since she was a girl.
Elenor snatched her hand away. This was no enchantment, she realized.
This…this was a curse.
“Don’t open it,” she said.
“Please. Don’t open it.”
“You do recognize it, then.”
“No. I don’t. But I have this feeling. I have seen this before.”
Her son gave her an exasperated look, the same expression he’d turned on her when she, freshly widowed but oddly stubborn, had told him it wasn’t necessary to move in.
He now pulled the box toward himself. The brass hinges swung open smoothly. Silently. Elenor could not view the contents, only the fine lilies dancing across the lid, but she could smell the aroma which wafted out of the old box, a nostalgic smell of old paper, pressed flowers, and the acridity of damp wood. And something else…
Yes, she could swear the cologne she breathed in now was a scent she recognized, cheap like a young boy’s first aftershave, or a breeze from a summer evening which had happened in her youth and then, like so many other evenings, passed into oblivion. Except this summer breeze chilled her to her core, and she still could not say why. What was this sense of bleak foreboding? Why did this box horrify her as if she beheld her own open casket?
Her son laughed at her expression. “Mom, it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s an old time capsule. You must have buried it years ago, back when you were a girl.”
“No,” she said. “I never—”
“Oh, come on, look at this!”
He held up a photograph of two people, a middle-aged woman and man. The woman in the photograph boasted a long sweep of hair over one shoulder and a dove-shaped mole on her right cheek. Seeing her, Elenor’s lips parted. Her brow furrowed as she leaned forward to inspect the photo more closely. The woman looked around fifty, maybe a little older, and she sat in the passenger seat of a car with a pair of sunglasses perched atop her graying head.
“That’s you, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Elenor said, but she stared now at the man pictured in the driver’s seat beside her. He had grisled hair buzzed short, and his eyes squinted a little as he stared out at the real Elenor. Perhaps, Elenor thought, he did look a little familiar, but she could not recall his name.
“I don’t know who that is,” she said. “Is there anything written on the back?”
Her son flipped the photograph around and showed her the blank space. “Dad had that much competition, huh? Can’t remember all their names?”
“There was never any competition,” she said.
Her son gave her the photo to examine and plunged his hand back into the box, still chuckling. Elenor studied the face as her son rummaged through the other pictures. Soon, however, his laughter and humming died off. When Elenor glanced up again, he’d arrayed a half dozen pictures in front of him, and his mouth made a hard, thin line.
“Mom,” he said. “Who the hell is this guy?”
Every photograph pictured Elenor and the unknown man together.
She stared down at the montage, stunned. A long moment passed as she struggled to comprehend it. At last, she opened her mouth to stammer out some excuse—for she had no idea who this man was, truly—but then, why would her son believe what she said?
The photographs proved she and this stranger had spent decades at each other’s sides. In the first photograph, from the car, Elenor and the man both looked about fifty. In the second, they beamed in front of a roller-coaster, and they both appeared around forty. Elenor could tell because her rapturous face contained only the fainter lines of early middle age. Then, beside it, another image showed her—them—at thirty-five. That was the year she’d chopped her hair short, and the man tugged playfully at the end one strand as if marveling at the new length. In fact, he touched her in every photograph. In one frame, the couple danced. In another, she laughed uproariously while he looked outraged. A scoop of ice cream dripped down his nose, and he had a hand slapped on her knee.
At last, Elenor had to admit to herself that he did look a little familiar, almost like a relation of someone she’d once known, if not the known man himself. But who, then? And how?
And how could that be her, Elenor wondered, when she did not remember a single one of these moments? How could these pictures portray her life when not one of them featured her children, her friends, her late husband? Her eyes hurtled from image to image with growing confusion and surmounting fear. The smell of cheap cologne emanating from the box burned her nose. She felt her eyes begin to sting.
“How long did this go on?” her son demanded.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know who these people are.”
He placed one last photograph down in front of her, and she could barely breathe.
For there her doppelganger stood, a stylish twenty-five with a cigarette clenched between her teeth and the same strange man beside her. This time, he leaned over with a lighter to spark up her cigarette, the blur of motion partially obscuring his face—but still, his face appeared youthful, unlined…and recognizable. She stared down at that sliver of his face, realizing with dawning horror that he bore more than a mere resemblance.
She clapped her hand over her mouth.
As far as her son was concerned, this served as an indictment. His chair scraped beneath him as he stood up and stormed from the room. She heard the front door slam.
But Elenor could not stand and pursue him. Instead, as if compelled by unseen forces, she found herself reaching into the box and sifting through a sheaf of yellowed letters and flurries of pressed lilies. Her hands trembled. At last, she felt the cruel edge of one final photograph. This time, she knew what—knew whom—she would see immortalized on film, even if she also knew with certainty that there had never been a picture taken of that day.
In the last photograph, she had just turned seventeen, and the man sat beside her on the very porch swing that, even now, creaked back and forth in front of her house, back and forth, and back, back, back…
She had known this boy for barely two months of a summer that had passed over fifty years before. She met him on her way back from the library in June 1969. There had not been enough seats for every passenger slopping onto the crowded bus, and he had to stand in the aisle and hold onto one of the overhead bars while the driver wheezed from stop to stop.
Oh, Elenor had felt the young man glance over at her a few times throughout the ride, but she had kept her eyes trained on her book even when the reading made her carsick. It was too intense, his stare. Probably she would not have spoken to him at all had she not stood up for her stop too early. The stuttering brakes unsteadied her, and she nearly toppled over, but the young man grabbed her arm.
Elenor could not remember now if they had gone on two dates or three. He was a soft-spoken and serious young man, kissing her with inexperience and in a way that crushed her mouth. They kissed only the once, and Elenor had touched her fingertips to her lips on the way home, wondering if she’d bruise. How surprised she had been to throw open her front door one August evening to sneak a cigarette and discover him trudging up her parents’ driveway with his hair buzzed close to the skull. He clutched a bouquet of lilies in his hand, and they’d already wilted in the heat.
“Your hair,” she’d said in greeting. It was all she could think to say.
He handed her the flowers and all but collapsed onto the swing beside her, his skin sticky with sweat where their flesh could not help but touch. When he pressed a ring into her palm, his hand had smacked sweaty then, too. She remembered that so clearly. The stench of his cold sweat, the claustrophobia of his cologne. She could still recall it now, acrid inside her mouth like an undertaker’s chemicals.
Yet more clearly and unpleasant even than that, Elenor remembered how, in the interminable minute before she was able to form her response to his proposal, it was not love or regret or even fondness that she’d felt for him but an acute embarrassment. She felt mortified by his earnestness, by her own indifference to his vulnerability, by her mother’s eavesdropping silhouette hovering behind the window screen.
Elenor understood she could never marry this boy, but she also realized how desperate and lonesome he had to be to even ask her in the first place after knowing her so briefly. He reeked of fear in that moment, not just a boy’s fear of a first love and her power to reject him, but of utter terror regarding the unfamiliar land to which he was bound and the danger he would meet there. She had not been able to see how she could comfort this terrified child soldier but at the same time break his heart.
And so she had not said no. Not at first. Mutely, resignedly, she’d slipped the ring around her finger, later covering that hand with the other as he walked off into the dusk. Several months passed after that, and at last, she supposed him far enough away that she could break his heart and hardly feel it—at most, the smallest pinch of guilt. He’d written her six letters. In the end, she wrote him only one. Two weeks after that, a local reporter mentioned in the paper that the boy’d been killed. He died thousands of miles from home, his body blasted to fragments of hair and flesh and even an eye that littered the floor of that hellish jungle, and she had never even known if he’d read her letter. She had always hoped—and this she’d dared to call a kindness all these years—that he had never seen it, and that he had gone to his sweating, shaking, stinking death still imagining the very life she saw spread out before her now.
God, was this her punishment? Was she doomed to uncover that final letter here in this box, scattered somewhere among the many papers beneath the lily petals and the pictures? For every one of these curling, yellow love letters bore her signature, and they traversed a series of dates well into the 70’s. She forced herself to read a few of the lines, and while none of them began the way she dreaded, she did find one dated the very week the boy had died, and the nausea this elicited was strong enough that she slammed the wooden lid shut.
Sick and so, so sorry, Elenor stared down at the infernal box with the same keen guilt and grief with which she’d once stared down at the boy’s coffin after they’d shipped the pieces of him home. She wanted to sob. Wanted to scream. What could it mean for her to have found this box now, after all these years? She had loved her husband, her kids, and the long life that she had lived with them, but she felt sick now to think of having done so atop this box for all these decades, atop the boy’s memory as it rotted beneath.
She could bear no more of this agony, and she could bear no more of the shame. So far beyond horror and pain that it felt the same as numbness, she shoved the box under the sink where she would not have to confront it and retreated to her bedroom. She locked the door before the sun even set, and she would not come out. For hours, she just lay in the damp summer heat atop her linens, tracking the slow revolutions of the ceiling fan above. She listened to the groaning movements of her son and his family as they moved about her house. Their bright and living chatter rose and fell through the hallways and up the staircases, and while she waited to hear her son mention the box to his wife or curse his old mother for her unfaithfulness, he made no mention of his discovery, and he did not go searching for it again—
Night dripped down the windows of the house, a splatter of moonlight, of midnight. The room cooled with the darkness. Elenor even felt a chill when, hours after the family would have otherwise been asleep, the kitchen floor flexed and groaned with sudden footsteps. She sat up in bed, fearful of what would be unleashed into the corridors if her son dared pry open the box. She pulled her robe tightly around her and tottered down the stairs to the kitchen, a plea ready on her lips.
She froze in the doorway, horror choking her throat.
A figure stood in the kitchen, but it was not her son.
This nightmare hunched under her sink in tattered army greens, its skin sickly white and bloodless in the places it still wore skin. Flesh dangled from open wounds which festered and drew flies. Terrified, Elenor backed into the doorframe, and the nightmare rose to its full height, a wooden box clenched in its grip. Its head swiveled on its spine to study her. Teeth clattered loose in its skull. Moonlight bled through the hole blown into the left side of its face, blue-white streaming out the emptiness like a horrible blind eye.
Elenor cried out. Yet the thing did not lunge for her on its backward feet and twisted kneebones. It simply tilted its head to study her suffering. For what were a few more agonizing moments when it had waited more than fifty years to take a life from the woman who’d abandoned him? Because that’s what it had been, abandonment, then and every day that had passed afterward when she had not even thought his name.
Elenor slumped to the floor, her back against the wall. In her terror, in her grief, she could manage but one gesture of solace, one motion to atone. She stretched out her shaking hand, an offering and an apology.
But the specter hissed and recoiled from her. It did not want this old woman, Elenor realized. It did not even seem to recognize her face. Instead, the creature yanked the mahogany box jealously against its chest as if it feared she’d try to steal it from him. Stooped over its prize, it bolted out the kitchen door into the backyard. For reasons Elenor could not fathom until later, she stumbled along after it, tugged forward by the otherwordly tie between them, the phantom limb of their alternate life, albeit one which belonged to the dead.
Yet Elenor’s bones reminded her that they’d grown ancient since the summer she was seventeen. By the time she hobbled out to the backyard, the creature had already burrowed back into the freshly turned-up earth. All that remained visible to her eye was its scrabbling, skeletal hand, dragging the box down after it. Then, in so quick an instant she felt she had gone mad, she could see nothing of it at all.
Hollowed, Elenor crumpled to her knees in the backyard. She stayed there until dawn, staring at the ground. The boy had not come to claim her. Rather he had slunk into her family’s home to take back the relics of that imagined future she had once promised him in their youth. The boy had emerged from his fantastic sleep—his dreams of her—and intruded on her reality only for as long as it would take to reclaim the box and its contents. She repressed a shudder as she thought of the boy crawling back to that same grave now, perhaps even burrowing under her unsteady feet at this very moment. Yet she understood now that his was not a malicious presence. It was a melancholy one. It was the unlived, the underneath. Skeletal and otherworldly, it remained as only a dead thing could, enduring below the surface of her as an unexplored possibility, the way to which had been closed off to her long ago, like lids slamming down on coffins, or on a dark, wood box.
Katelyn Pike is a writer and teacher based in the Saint Louis, Missouri. She writes short fiction meant to capture subjects both beautiful and brutal. You can find her other work in the 2022 summer edition of Orca, a literary journal, as well as in Phobia, an anthology collection of horror stories by Free Spirit press. Come December, you’ll find her name in Writer’s Digest. Connect with Katelyn on twitter at miss_kate_marie.